BLACKMAIL

Has everyone some secret that he would gladly hide?

JOHN GALSWORTHY December 15 1922

BLACKMAIL

Has everyone some secret that he would gladly hide?

JOHN GALSWORTHY December 15 1922

BLACKMAIL

JOHN GALSWORTHY

Has everyone some secret that he would gladly hide?

THE affectionate, if rather mocking, friend who had said of Charles Granter: “Ce n'est pas un homme, c'est un batiment," seemed justified, to the thin dark man following him down Oakley Street, Chelsea, that early October afternoon. From the square foundations of his feet, to his square fair beard and the top of his head, under a soft felt bowler, he looked very big, solid as granite, indestructible—steel-clad, too, for his grey clothes increased his bulk in the gentle sunlight; too big to be taken by the board—only fit to be submarined. And the man, dodging in his wake right down to the Embankment, ran up once or twiceunder his counter and fell behind again, as if appalled by the vessel’s size and unconsciousness. Considering the heat of the past summer, the plane-trees were still very green, and few of their leaves had dropped or turned yellow— just enough to confirm the glamorous melancholy of early Fall. Granter, though he lived with his wife in some Mansions close by, went out of his way to pass under those trees and look at the river. This seeming disclosure of sensibility, perhaps, determined the shadowy man to dodge up again and become stationary close behind. Ravaged and streaked, as if he had lived submerged, he stood carefully noting, with his darting, dark eyes, that they two were quite alone; then, swallowing violently, so that the strings of his lean neck writhed, he moved stealthily up beside Granter, and said in a hurried, hoarse voice;

“Beg pardon, Mister—ten

pound, and I’ll say nothin’.”

The face which Granter turned toward that surprising utterance, was a good illustration of the saying ‘things are not always what they seem.’ Above that big building of a body, it quivered, ridiculously alive, and complex, as of a man full of nerves, humours and sarcasms; and a deep continuous chinking sound arose—of Charles Granter jingling coins in his trousers’ pocket. The quiver settled into raised eyebrows, into crows' feet running out on to the broad cheekbones, into a sarcastic smile, drooping the corners of the lips between moustache and beard. And, in a rather high voice, he said:

“What’s the matter with you, my friend?”

The voice of his “friend” rose, curiously grating.

“There’s a lot the matter with me, Mister. Down and out I . am. I know where you live.

I know your lady; but—ten pound and I’ll say nothin’.”

“About what?”

“About your v i s i t i n’ that gell, where you’ve just come from. Ten pound. It’s cheap —I’m a man of me word.”

With lips still sarcastically drooped, Granter made a little derisive sound.

“Blackmail, by George!”

“Come on, Guv’nor—I’m desperate, I mean to have that

ten pound. You give it me here at six o’clock this evenin’, if you ’aven’t got it on you.” His eyes flared suddenly in his hungry face. “But no tricks: I ain’t

killed Huns for nothin’.”

Charles Granter surveyed him for a moment, then turned his back and looked at the water.

“You’ve got two hours to get it in—six o’clock, Guv’nor; and no tricks—I warn you.”

THE hoarse voice ceased, the sound of footsteps died away; Granter was alone. The smile still clung to his lips, but he was not amused; he was annoyed; with the measured indignation of a big man, highly civilized and innocent. Where had this ruffian sprung from? To be spied on, without knowing it, like this. Granter's ears grew red. What a damned scoundrel!

The thing was too absurd to pay attention to. And, instantly, his highly-sophisticated consciousness began to pay attention. How many visits had he made to this distressed flower-girl? Three? And all because he didn’t like handing over the case to that Society which always found out the worst. They said private charity was dangerous. And so apparently it was. Blackmail! And suddenly a consideration perched like a crow on the

branches of his mind: Why hadn’t he mentioned the

flower-girl to h s wife, and made her do the visiting? Why! Because Olga would have said the girl was a fraud. And perhaps she was a put-up job! Would the scoundrel have ventured on this threat at all if the girl were not behind him? She might support him with lies. His wife might believe them —she—she had such a vein of cynicism! How sordid, how domestically unpleasant!

Granter felt quite sick. Every decent human value seemed suddenly in question. And a second crow came croaking. Could one leave a scoundrel like this to play his tricks with impunity? Oughtn’t one to go to the police? He stood extraordinarily still—a dappled leaf dropped from a plane-tree and lodged on his grey hat; at the other end of him a little dog mistook him for a lamp-post. This was no joke. For a man with a reputation for humanity, integrity and common-sense— no joke at all. A Police Court meant the prosecution of a fellow-creature, and getting him perhaps a year’s imprisonment, when one had always felt that punishment practically never fitted crime! Staring at the river, he seemed to see cruelty hovering over himself, his wife, Society, the flower-girl, even over that scoundrel— naked cruelty, waiting to pounce on one or all. Whichever way one turned the thing was dirty, cruel. No wonder blackmail was accounted such a heinous crime. No other human act was so cold-blooded, spider-like, and slimy; none plunged so deadly a dagger into the bowels of compassion, so eviscerated humanity, so murdered faith! And it would have been worse if his conscience had not been clear. But wasitsoextremely clear?

Would he have taken the trouble to go to that flower-girl’s dwelling,

go not once but three times, unless she had been attractive, unless her dark brown eyes had been pretty, and her common voice so soft? Would he have visited the blowsy old flower-woman at that other corner, in circumstances, no doubt, just as strenuous? His honesty answered: No. But his sense of justice added, that if he did like a pretty face, he was not vicious—he was fastidious and detested subterfuge. But then Olga was so cynical, she would

Olga was so certainly ask him why he hadn’t visited the old’ flower-woman as well, and the lame man who sold matches, and all the other stray unfortunates of the neighborhood. Well, there it was; and a bold course always the best! But what was the bold course? To go to the Police? To his wife? To that girl, and find out if she were in this ramp? To wait till six o’clock, meet the ruffian, and shake the teeth out of him? Granter could not decide. All seemed equally bold—would do equally well. And a fifth course presented itself which seemed even bolder: Ignore the thing!

The tide had just turned, and the full waters below him were in suspense, of a sunlit, soft grey colour. This stillness of the river restored to Charles Granter something of the impersonal mood in which he had crossed the Embankment to look at it. Here by the Mother stream of this great town, was he, tall, strong, well-fed, and if not rich, quite comfortable; and here, too, were ' hundreds of thousands like the needy flower-girl and this shadowy scoundrel, skating on the edge of destitution. And here this water was—to him a source of aesthetic enjoyment; to them—a possible last refuge. The girl had. talked of it— beggar’s patter, perhaps, like the blackmailer’s words: “I’m desperate—I’m down and out.” One wanted to be just. If he had known all about -them— but there it was, he knew nothing!

“I can’t believe she’s such an ungrateful little wrench,” he thought: “I’ll go back and see her again”........

J_JE RETRACED his way up

Oakley Street to the Mews which she inhabited, and ascending a stairway scented with petrol, knocked on a half-open door, whence he could see her baby of doubtful authorship, seated in an empty flowerbasket—a yellow baby, whostared up at him with the placidity of one recently fed. That

stare seemed to Granter to be saying: “You look out that you’re not taken for my author. Have you got an alibi, old man?” And almost unconsciously he began to calculate where he had been about fourteen or fifteen months ago. Not in London—thank goodness— in Brittany with his wife—all that July, August, and September. Jingling his money, he contemplated the baby. It seemed more, but it might be only four months old! And the baby opened its mouth in a toothless smile. “Ga!” it said, and stretched out a tiny hand. Granter ceased to jingle the coins and gazed round the room. The first time he came, a month ago, to test her street-corner story, its condition had been deplorable. His theory that people were never better than their environments, had prompted the second visit, and that of this afternoon.

He had, he told himself, wanted to know that he was not throwing away his money. And there certainly was some appearance of comfort now in a room so small that he almost filled it. But the longer he contemplated, thegreater fool he felt for ever having come here, even with these best intentions which were the devil. And, turning to go, he saw the girl herself coming up the stairs, with a paper hag in her hand and an evident bull’s-eye-

in her mouth, for a scent of peppermint preceded her. Surely her cheekbones were higher than he thought, her eyebrows more oblique—a gipsy look! Her eyes, dark and lustrous as a hound puppy’s, smiled at him, and he said in his rather high voice:

“I came back to ask you something.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know a dark man with a thin face, and a slight squint, who’s been in the army?”

“What’s his name, sir?”

“I don’t know; but he followed me from here, and tried to blackmail me on the Embankment. You know what blackmail is?”

“No, sir.”

Feline, swift and furtive, she had passed him and taken up her baby, slanting her dark glance at him from behind it. Granter’s eyes were very round just then, the corners of his mouth very drawn down. He was experiencing a most queer sensation. Really it was as if— though he disliked poetic emphasis—as if he had suddenly seen something pre-civilised, pre-human, snake-like, cat-like, monkey-like too, in those dark sliding eyes and that yellow baby. Sure, as he stood there, she was in it; or if not in it, she knew of it!

“A dangerous game, that,” he said. “Tell him—for his own good—he had better drop it.”

And, while he went, very square, downstairs, he thought —“This is one of the finest opportunities you ever had for getting to the bottom of human nature, and you’re running away from it.” So strongly did this thought obsess him, that he halted, in two minds, outside. A chauffeur, who was cleaning his car, looked at him curiously. Charles Granter moved away.

II *

WHEN he reached the little drawing-room of their flat, his wife was making tea. She was rather 'short, with a good figure, and brown eyes in a flattish

face, powdered and by no means unattractive. She had Slav blood in her Polish; and Granter never now confided to her the finer shades of his thoughts and conduct, because she had long made him feel he was her superior in moral sensibility. He had no wish to feel superior— it was often very awkward; but he could not help it. In view of this attempt at blackmail, it was more than awkward. For it is extraordinarily unpleasant to fall from a pedestal on which you do not wish to be.

He sat down, very large, in a lacquered chair with black cushions, spoke of the leaves turning, saw her look at him and smile, and felt that she knçw he was disturbed.

“Do you ever wonder,” he said, tinkling his tea-spoon, “about the lives that other people live?”

“What sort of people, Charles?”

“Oh—not our sort: matchsellers, don’t you know, flower-sellers, people down and out?”

“No. I don’t think I do.”

If only he could tell her of this monstrous incident without slipping from his pedestal!

“It interests me enormously; there are such queer depths to reach, don’t you know.”

Her smile seemed to answer: “You can’t reach the depth in me.” And it was true. She was very Slav, with the warm gleam in her eyes and the opaque powdered skin of her flat comely face. An enigma—flatly an enigma! There were deep waters below the pedestal, like—like Phylae, with columns still standing in the middle of the Nile Dam.

“I’ve often wondered,” he said, “how I should feel if I were down and out.”

“You? You’re too large, Charles, and too dignified, my dear; you’d be on the Civil List before you knew where you were.” Granter rose from the lacquered chair, jingling his coins. The most vivid pictures at that moment were, like a film, unrolled before his mind— of the grey sunlit river, and that accosting blackguard, with his twisted murky face, and lips uttering hoarse sounds; of the yellow baby, and the girl’s gipsy-dark

glance from behind it; of a Police Court, and himself standing there and letting the whole cart-load of the Law fall on them. And he said suddenly:

“I was blackmailed this afternoon, on the Embank-

She did not answer, and turning with irritation, he saw that her fingers were in her ears.

“I do wish you wouldn’t jingle your money so,” she said. Confound it! She had not heard him.

“I’ve had an adventure,” he began again. “You know the flower-girl who stands at that corner in Tite Street!”

“Yes; a gipsy baggage.”

“H’m! Well, I bought a flower from her one day, and she told me such a pathetic story that I went to her den to see if it was true. It seemed all right, so I gave her some money, don’t you know. Then I thought I’d better see how she was spending it, so I went to see her again, don’t you know.”

A faint “Oh! Charles!” caused him to hurry on.

“And—what d’you think—a blackguard followed me to-day and tried to blackmail me for ten pounds, on the Embankment.”

A sound brought his face round to attention. His wife was lying back on the cushions of her chair in a paroxysm of soft laughter.

It was clear to Granter, then, that what he had really been afraid of was just this. His wife would laugh at him —laugh at him slipping from the pedestal! Yes! it was that he had dreaded—not any disbelief in his fidelity. Somehow he felt too large to be laughed at. He was too large! Nature had set a size beyond which husbands -!

“I don’t see what there is to laugh at!” he said frigidly: “there’s no more odious crime than blackmail.”

HIS wife was silent, with two tears trickling down her cheeks.

“Of course not.”

Continued on Page 50

Blackmail

Continued from page 27

“What was he threatening?”

“To tell you.”

“But what?”

“His beastly interpretation ofmyharmless visits.”

The tears had made runlets in her powder, and he added viciously: “He

doesn’t know you, of course.”

His wife dabbed her eyes, and a scent of geranium arose.

“It seems to me,” said Granter, “that you’d be even more amused if there were something in it!”

“Oh! no, Charles, but—perhaps there is.”

Granter looked at her fixedly.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, there is

He saw her cover her lips with that rag of handkerchief, and abruptly left the room.

He went into his study and sat down before the fire. So it was funny to be a faithful husband? And suddenly he thought: “If my wife can treat this as a joke, what—what about herself?” A nasty thought! An unconscionable thought! Really, it was as though that blackmailing scoundrel had dirtied human nature, till it seemed to function only from low motives. A church clock chimed. Six already! The ruffian would be back there on the Embankment, waiting for his ten pounds. Granter rose. His duty was to go out and hand him over to the police.

“No!” he thought viciously. “Let him come here! I’d very much like him to come here. I’d teach him!”

But a sort of shame beset him. Like most very big men, he was quite unaccustomed to violence—had never struck a blow in his life, not even in his school-days —had never had occasion to. He went across to the window. He could just see the Embankment parapet through the trees, in the failing light, and presently— sure enough— made out the fellow’s figure slinking up and down like a hungry dog. And he stood, watching, jingling his money—nervous, sarcastic, angry, very interested. What would the rascal do now! Would he beard this great block of flats? And was the girl down there too—the girl, with her yellow baby? He saw the slinking figure cross from the far side and vanish under the loom of the Mansions. In that interesting moment Granter burst through the bottom of one of his trousers pockets; several coins jingled on to the floor and rolled away. He was still looking for the last when he heard the door bell ring—he had never really believed the ruffian would come up! Straightening himself abruptly, he went out into the hall. Service was performed by the Mansions staff, so there was no one in the flat but himself and his wife. The bell rang again; and she, too, appeared.

“This is my Embankment friend who amuses you so much. I should like you to see him,” he said grimly. He noted a quizzical apology on her face and opened the hall door.

YES! there stood the man! By electric light, in upholstered surroundings, more “down and out” than ever. A bad lot, but a miserable, poor wretch, with his broken boots, his thin, twisted, twitching face, his pinched, shabby figure—only his hungry eyes looked dangerous.

“Come in,” said Granter. “You want to see my wife, I think.”

The man recoiled.

“I don’t want to see ’er,” he muttered, “unless you force me to. Give us five pound, Guv’nor, and I won’t worry you again. I don’t want to cause trouble between man and wife.”

“Come in,” repeated Granter: “she’s

expecting you.”

The man stood, silently passing a pale tongue over a pale upper lip, as though conjuring some new resolution from his embarrassment.

“Now, see 'ere, Mister,” hesaidsuddenly. “You’ll regret it if I come in—you will, straight.”

“I shall regret it if you don’t. You’re a very interesting fellow, and an awful scoundrel.”

“Well, who made me one?” the man burst out; “you answer me that.”

“Are you coming in?”

“Yes, I am.”

He came, and Granter shut the door behind him.

It was like inviting a snake or a mad dog into one’s parlour; but the memory of having been laughed at was so fresh within him, that he rather welcomed the sensa-

“Now,” he said, “have the kindness!” and opened the drawing-room door.

The man slunk in, blinkinginthestronger light.

Granter went towards his wife, who was standing before the fire.

“This gentleman has an important communication to make to you, it seems.”

The expression of her face struck him as peculiar—surely ,she wasnotfrightened! And he experienced a kind of pleasure in seeing them both look so exquisitely uncomfortable.

“Well,” he said ironically,“perhaps you’dlike me notto listen.” And.goingback to the door, he stood leaning against it with his hands up to his ears. He saw the fellow give him a furtive look and go nearer to her; his lips moved rapidly, hers answered, and he thought; ‘What on earth am I covering my ears for?’ As he took his hands away, the man turned round and said:

“I’m goin’ now, Mister; a little mistake —sorry to ’ave troubled, you.”

His wife had turned to the fire again; and with a puzzled feeling Granter opened the door. As the fellow passed, he took him by the arm, twisted him round into the study, and, locking the door, put key into his pocket.

“Now then,” he said, “you precious scoundrel!”

The man shifted on his broken boots “Don’t you hit me, Guv’nor. I got a knife here.”

“I’m not going to hit you. I’m going to hand you over to the Police.”

The man’s eyes roved looking for a way of escape; then rested, as if fascinated, on the glowing hearth.

“What’s ten pound?” he said suddenly. “You’d never ha’ missed it, Guv’nor.”

Granter smiled.

“You don’t seem to realize, my friend, that blackmail is the most devilish crime a man can commit.” And he crossed over to the telephone.

THE man’s eyes, dark, restless, violent, and yet hungry, began to shift up and down the building of the man before him.

“No,” he said, suddenly,with a sort of pathos, “don’t do that, Guv’nor!” Something—the look of his eyes or the tone of his voice affected Granter.

“But if I don’t,” he said, slowly, “you’ll be doing this to the next person you meet. You’re as dangerous as a viper.” The man’s lips quivered; he covered them with his hand, and said from behind it:

“I’m a man like yourself. I’m down and out—that’s all. Look at me!” Granter’s glance dwelt on the trembling hand. “Yes; but you fellows destroy all belief in human nature,” he said vehemently.

“See ’ere, Guv’nor; you try livin’ like me—you try it! My Gawd. You try my life these last six months—cadgin’ and crawlin’ for a job!” He made a deep sound. “A man ’oo’s done ’is bit, too. Wot life is it? A stinkin’ life, not fit for a dawg, let alone a 'uraan bein’. An’ when I see a great big chap like you, beggin’ your pardon. Mister-—well fed, with everything to ’is ’and—it was regular askin’ for it. It come over me, it did.”

“No, no,” said Granter, grimly; “that won’t do. It couldn’t have been sudden. You calculated—you concocted this. Blackmail is sheer, filthy, cold-blooded blackguardism. You don’t care two straws whom you hurt, whose lives you wreck, what faiths you destroy.” And he put his hand on the receiver.

The man squirmed.

“Steady on, Guv’nor! I’ve gotta find food. I’ve gotta find clothes. I can’t live on air. I can’t go naked.” Granter stood motionless, while the man’s voice continued to travel to him acrossthe cosy room.

“Give us a chawnce, Guv’nor! Ah! give us a chawnce! You can’t understand my temptations. Don’t ’ave the Police to me. I won’t do this againgive you me word—so ’elp me. I’ve got it in the neck. Let me go, Guv’nor.”

In Granter, still motionless as the

flats he lived.in, areally heavy struggle was in progress—not between duty and pity, but between revengeful anger and a sort of horror at using the strength of prosperity against so broken a wretch.

“Let me go, Mister!” came the hoarse voice again. “Be a sport!”

Granter dropped the receiver, and unlocked the door.

“All right; you can go.”

The man crossed swiftly.

“Christ!” he said; “good luck! And as to the lady—I take it back. I never see ’er. It’s all me eye.”

He was across the hall and gone before

Granter could say a word; the scurrying shuffle of his footsteps down the stairs died away. “And as to the lady—I take it back—I never see her. It’s all me eye!” Good God! The scoundrel, having failed with him, had been trying to blackmail his wife—his wife, who had laughed at his fidelity!—his wife who had looked—frightened! “All me eye!” Her face started up before Granter—scared, under its powder, with a mask drawn over it. And he had let that scoundrel go! Scared! Thatwasthe—¡....Blackmail. . . .of all poisonous human actions!. .... His wife!.... But.... What now... !